This post is a recap and reflection on attending the 2nd Queer Internet Studies Workshop in Philadelphia on Friday, February 17. See their website for more information. The travel to attend this even was supported by the Diversity Committee Travel Grant from the University of Michigan School of Information.
Keywords: Visibility, safety, digitization, internet studies, queer studies.
Opening with the question “What is queer about internet studies now?”¹, Jessa Lingel
and Jack Jen Gieseking
kicked off the second Queer Internet Studies Workshop, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art on the UPenn campus in Philadelphia. Taking inspiration from topics such as porn, suicide, sex, and identity, we began the day with small group discussions about why we were attending and wrapping our minds around something like “the queer internet(s).” Following, a research panel convened with presentations on policing by non-police actors (Mitali Thakor
), archiving queer games (Adrienne Shaw
), self-disclosure during identity transitions (Oliver Haimson
), transgender visibility (Mia Fischer
), and community organizing online (Carmen Rios
). These morning conversations primed us for an afternoon of critical engagement with each other around topics of digitzation and queer identity online during a hands-on workshop lead by TL Cowan
. The day was capped by a rousing and inspirational conversation between Katherine Sender
and Shaka McGlotten
that spanned from questions of digital public sex to surveillance of workers. Throughout all of these conversations, visibility, and particularly the seemingly boundless visibility of artifacts, words, and/or feelings online, became a line through which I made connections.
In our first breakout group after Jessa and Jack’s introduction, I sat at a table with folks from a variety of backgrounds, from social computing to literary studies. Our conversation immediately turned to online communities and their features and affordances that support various forms of perceived safety. Facebook groups that are closed and/or secret have recently emerged into popular discourse, especially as it relates to political organizing in the wake of the election. Our table discussed how these groups feel safe but ultimately aren’t, that the visibility or invisibility afforded by their closed/secret status is tenuous as best (not to mention their place on a widely surveilled social network). Further, while these spaces may provide perceived notions of safety, people must have “an in” to get access in the first place, potentially leaving those most vulnerable out in the cold. It lead to this broader question of, what do we expect from platforms like Facebook that aren’t meant to be queer to begin with? Is it possible to design for security that ultimately doesn’t exist? And further, how do we cope with subjective security norms, values, and expectations when queerness has such a complicated history with visibility?
Many (most? all?) of the attendees benefitted from the visibility of queerness, of queer bodies in circulation through public media, in our own processes of understanding our sexual identities. In her description of the LGBTQ Game Archive, Adrienne Shaw described a need to make the LGBTQ characters and content of indie games visible in lists of queer game characters which frequently feature the same content over and over again. Additionally, she mentioned something that had come up in our small group conversation: the vanishing of technological queer artifacts from the 80s (e.g. queer indie games) that didn’t benefit from widely networked connection and distribution that started to emerge in the mid-90s. While Shaw and her team working on the LGBTQ Game Archive are trying to discover and make these queer artifacts visible, TL Cowan led an afternoon workshop inspired by the digitization of lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, that questioned whether visibility is always a good thing. The digitization of something such as On Our Backs begs the question whether the folks who originally posed for photos and submitted to the magazine would have done so with the knowledge that these articles would be made easily available for the world to see. Cowan leveraged this to question visibility and strike the difference between queer disappearance as survival and queer disappearance as oblivion. While visibility indeed communicates needed knowledge, literacies, and subjectivities, invisibility is also just as important for the survival as queer people.
In my research with rural LGBT people in the midwest, I take inspiration from these conversations around visibility, and especially the politics of visibility. In Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, Mary Gray asks readers to “consider how strategies of visibility that currently drive mainstream gay and lesbian social movements in the United States work out in the country” (4). Urban dominated discourses of the benefits of visibility to LGBT rights and political movements do not take into account the complexity of what it means to be visible in a small town where there are likely to be not only fewer LGBT-identified people, but drastically fewer people out of the closet. This is what Gray and others call, “the politics of visibility.” While those of us that do work in rural areas recognize that visibility operates differently depending on location, that also extends to increased calls of (forced) visibility on the Internet. We should continue to honor these calls around the complexities of visibility in order to not only acknowledge the silences (or oblivions) that may emerge in our research, but to also just recognize a basic queer condition: that visibility and safety are not always compatible.
1. This opening prompt was inspired by a 2005 issue of Social Text that asked the question, “What is queer about queer studies now?”